School accountability triggering pupil mental health problems, research warns

Pupils are suffering from a rise in in anorexia, self-harm and other mental health problems, because of government measures to hold schools to account, the author of a report published today has warned.

Professor Merryn Hutchings from London Metropolitan University, said: “Anorexia is increasing among primary-age children.

“Self-harm was reported as a direct response to the pressure of Sats and these pressures increased through the secondary school years”.

His study, Exam Factories?, commissioned by the NUT teaching union, examined the impact of accountability measures in England’s schools, including Ofsted inspections and school performance tables.

It reports that increasingly high levels of anxiety, disaffection and mental health problems are caused by the pressure from tests and exams as well as a greater awareness of “failure” at younger ages and the increased academic demands of the curriculum.

Lucie Russell from mental health charity Young Minds said teachers as well as pupils were “under a lot of pressure to achieve results in a pressure cooker, exam factory environment”.

“Constant testing and assessments are creating an environment that is putting a lot of stress on young people and adversely affecting their confidence, self-esteem and mental health,” she said at the launch of the report.

“What we need to do is create an education system whose success is not just assessed by exam results, but by how it is helping to develop children’s and young people’s character, resilience and well-being.”

The research also included a survey of almost 8,000 teachers, which found that 94 per cent said they spent more time on accountability documentation than lesson planning.

It found that 90 per cent of the teachers said children were being asked to learn things that they are not ready for and 95 per cent did not have enough time to focus on the needs of individual pupils.

The report was damning of Ofsted, which was viewed as unsupportive, punitive and inconsistent, with the ability to cause a school to “fall apart”. It noted inspectors’ “tendency not to take on board the way that individual circumstances affect outcomes”.

It also found that nine out of 10 teachers think that pupils become stressed and anxious in the time leading up to Sats exams – taken in Year 2 and Year 9 – and 80 per cent of teachers said that the emotional and social aspects of education were neglected because of the need to focus on academic targets.

One teacher in an “outstanding” Ofsted-rated primary school commented in the report: “It is heartbreaking to have a four-year-old approach me in tears because they are still in the ‘bad group’ for reading because they have already been streamed in phonics at age four!”

Another teacher said a “severely dyslexic” and “incredibly hard-working” Year 6 pupil turned to self-harming because of the “pressure she felt to achieve to a level similar to that of her peers”, and another commented that self-harming is “rife” in pupils aged 14-16.

Pupils interviewed for the report spoke of exam stress and their worries about performing well. A Year 12 student said some young people would cry for most of anexam because they were so stressed.

NUT deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney said: “It demonstrates in vivid terms that the accountability agenda of government and Ofsted is having deep-rooted and negative effects on both primary and secondary pupils.

“The whole culture of a school has become geared towards meeting government targets and Ofsted expectations. As this report shows, schools are on the verge of becoming ‘exam factories’.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Part of our commitment to social justice is the determination to ensure that every child is given an education that allows them realise their potential.

“That’s why we are raising standards with a rigorous new curriculum, world-class exams and new accountability system that rewards those schools which help every child to achieve their best.”

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